In my hometown, Portland OR, one of the most obvious “othered” groups is the substantial homeless population. There are many reasons why there is so much homelessness in Portland, including high and rising rents, a mild annual climate, and an ongoing drug crisis. Portland doesn’t necessarily have more homeless people than other major US cities (source), but due to Portland’s “Housing First” policy (which “emphasizes transitional and permanent housing as opposed to short-term or emergency shelter” (source)), the homeless population is more noticeable (source).
The attitude of many Portlanders towards the homeless has changed recently. For a long time, most people (and consequently city officials) emphasized a largely hands-off approach to homelessness, including not enforcing sidewalk ordinances and allowing large, semi-permanent camps to form (source). However, implicit was the assumption that over time, homeless people would be aided and transferred into long-term housing. This did not occur, however, and many people began calling for a more proactive approach. Recently, officials have been elected on promises of stricter measures to curb homelessness. Advocates say these new policies (including a ban on multi-day tent camping and concurrent construction of more temporary housing spaces) are necessary to ensure safety and the prosperity of Portland businesses, while detractors say they are “a waste of resources better directed at the many underlying causes of the crisis” and “pit houseless people against housed ones” (source).
As someone who lives outside of Portland proper but frequently goes downtown for work and other events, I definitely experience the homeless population as “other.” Although there are many reasons why someone might be homeless, people often lump all homeless people into one group and attach descriptives like “addict” or “dangerous.” The media emphasizes the worst of homelessness: individuals experiencing severe mental health crisis, images of people using drugs, piles of trash. Especially for the average person, who isn’t actively working with the government or nonprofits to solve homelessness, it’s easy to absorb popular messaging. I am more cautious of my surroundings while downtown, and deliberately avoid homeless camps.
While there is some need to be cautious (a 2016 study found that “35-40% of homeless adults in Oregon suffer from some form of mental illness” (source), and there is a popular – if difficult to empirically prove – association between homeless camps and higher crime rates (source)), the majority of people experiencing homelessness are not dangerous. It’s important to remember that, especially when making policy decisions or voting. Treating everyone on the streets as one homogenized block obscures the diverse reasons for homelessness (and consequently their different solutions), but separates the housed from the unhoused and creates a clear “othered” group.
In- and out- groups have real consequences. Perceived or actual differences between groups can lead to violence: according to HealthAffairs, hate crimes are often defined as “acts toward a person or group based on actual or perceived group membership” (source).
One example of the ways out-grouping can lead to violence is demonstrated in Libya, which is currently experiencing a civil war. The weak central government means Libyan borders are relatively porous; consequently, refugees from many places are crossing into Libya to access the Mediterranean (and from there, European states). According to Brookings, the Libyan population (dealing with its own troubles from the civil war, including widespread resource shortages) is largely unwelcoming. With the state in disarray and migrants labeled as an unwanted out-group, refugees are being taken advantage of and treated horribly. Abuses against migrants include rape, beatings, “arbitrary, unfair, and indefinite detention, torture, extortion of bribes with violence, and threat of deportation” (source). Migrants are often abused or forced into agreeing to an “assisted return” to their country of origin (source).
Italy (the desired destination of many migrants) has also been consistently trying to stop migrants from crossing its borders: Italy supports the Libyan Coast Guard as they stop migrant vessels, impounds NGO ships trying to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean, and routinely returns migrants to Libya’s harsh detention facilities (source). Understanding why they do this is complicated: they are struggling to feed and house the massive flow of migrants and popular (often racist) narratives present migrants as burdens or threats (source), yet they also have a shrinking population and labor shortage (source) that could potentially be solves by welcoming migrants.
The individual and government treatment of migrants in Libya and Italy is incredibly complex, but it is clear that in- and out- grouping dynamics are present and potentially deeply influential. Because it is so easy to dehumanize and harm the “other,” it is vital that we identify in- and out- groups (both in our own communities and globally) and look beyond the most popular narrative about them, to find similarities and effective, kind solutions.
title image: source